“Reading comprehension underpins all learning,” says North Ayrshire educational psychologist Dr Taryn Moir. “For the rest of your life, you will read to learn, and to understand, and to progress. It is the thing that will carry your learning forward.”
And thanks to research undertaken for her doctorate, Moir has identified an intervention that significantly improves pupils’ ability to understand what they read, at the same time as being inexpensive and easy to implement.
Now inspection and curriculum development body Education Scotland has asked Moir to showcase the findings of her research to the country’s educators at the Scottish Learning Festival in September.
The Strathclyde Higher Order Reading Skills (Shors) programme is not a slickly marketed, glossy package. Rather, Shors outlines 12 “simple” techniques that have been proven to work when it comes to improving reading comprehension. These include encouraging pupils to summarise as they go, reread when they do not understand and link what they are reading to their wider experiences (see box, opposite).
Moir found that, after eight weeks of using Shors four times a week for 45 minutes, P5 pupils had made 10 months of extra progress when compared with their peers in a control group.
Moir also has evidence that children who learn the Shors techniques are more likely to read for pleasure. At the start and the end of the study, as well as running a standardised assessment called the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test to see how the children’s literacy skills had improved, the educational psychologist asked the pupils how often they read at home and how many books they had read in the past two months.
The control group reported reading at home less than they had done at the start of the trial, but no such drop was apparent for the intervention group.
‘Changing habits for the better’
Moir says: “It is possible to argue that the techniques also help overcome this dip in reading motivation. Whatever is going on, they are changing the children’s reading habits for the better.”
The study was small – just 74 children were involved, with 38 in the control group and 36 using the techniques – but the aim was not to prove that the techniques worked, as that had already been done in large trials in the US. This was about whether they would translate to a Scottish context.
Ultimately, the study has shown that “Shors offers a high-impact and easily implemented methodology for raising attainment for all ability levels in reading comprehension”, Moir says in her thesis.
Elspeth McCartney, a University of Stirling professor of education, designed the Shors approach alongside University of Strathclyde literacy expert Professor Sue Ellis. As McCartney puts it, “simple techniques can make a big difference”.
She adds: “It’s not rocket science. It’s about empowering children to go beyond decoding to trying to hold in their mind what’s going on, and what they can do if they get into trouble.”
McCartney believes teachers who are not using these techniques need to be aware of how powerful they can be, and that those who are already using them need regular reassurance that what they are doing is worthwhile.
For Moir, there is another important message about the role educational psychologists can play in helping teachers to learn how to undertake good-quality research.
Moir says: “No longer should teaching be considered an art – instead it should be considered a science, where a research culture is integrated into practice to optimise ongoing improvement and effective evaluation.” And educational psychologists, she says, “can support this change in ethos”.
As a result of Moir’s doctoral research, North Ayrshire Council is now rolling out Shors to all its schools via its Professional Learning Academy.
Moir will present her findings at this year’s Scottish Learning Festival, which will take place in Glasgow on 19-20 September (see bit.ly/LearningFestivalprogramme).